The myth of the genius architect.

For those of you who live in Melbourne, Australia, Glenn Murcutt has designed this year’s MPavilion. For those of you who live in the rest of Australia, Glenn Murcutt has designed a pavilion to sit in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens. For those of you outside of Australia, Glenn Murcutt is one of Australia’s most famous architects and was the recipient of the 2002 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Global reader, don’t worry if you haven’t heard the name Glenn Murcutt, it is unlikely you will ever physically experience one of his buildings as they are mainly private properties in rural Australia.

The MPavilion holds similarities to London’s Serpentine pavilion; both use architecture as a means to facilitate a program of cultural events. The Serpentine Pavilion engages architects with no UK experience, to produce experimental projects, while the Naomi Milgrom Foundation involves an “outstanding architect” to simply design a pavilion. This year I was particularly surprised that Glenn Murcutt had received the MPavilion commission, especially given the large pool of latent architectural talent existing in Melbourne. When Murcutt’s proposal came out to the public last week, an extra sense of unease arose concerning his design and the narrative surrounding the architecture. I felt to need to explore how Murcutt’s design relates to contemporary culture, and see if it helps engage a broader public interest in architecture.

Genius architects

For most of his career, Glen Murcutt has practised as a sole practitioner, meaning he works alone. As a result, his architecture is generally restricted to small scale buildings as he individually manages both a design process and information required for construction. He represents the understanding of the architect as the “genius” creative, who’s architecture represents the creative energy of an individual practitioner, such an identity has existed since the Rennaisance. The “genius” tag is also popularly assigned to famous architects, whose personality provide a brand, but whose large companies produce the creative energy. The problem with the idea that architecture emerges from the genius’s mind is that it misses the social process of creativity. The idea is also used to justify the often individual, subjective and romantic design responses that arise from the sole practitioner.

Designing a pavilion for a cultural festival provides the opportunity to use architecture to question or even reshape culture. Architecture can engage culture in different ways, through its ability to visually communicate, provide shelter, organise social interaction and provide spatial experience. The commission of a pavilion offers the opportunity to engage the public to think differently about their built environment. Rather than doing this, Murcutt’s design relies on imagery associated with the “genius” architect, for example, the choice of tent-like materials, or wing-like form evoked from a personal travel story. Murcutt’s pavilion provides an architecture based on a particular viewpoint, rather than responding to the beliefs and structures that maintain different social identities in Melbourne.

MPavilion 2019 render by Two Feathers.

A bygone culture

Murcutt’s architecture talks to a past architectural culture, one of modernist simplicity, reliance on the hand-drawn and an avoidance of the digital. This past culture relied on knowledge held within building trades to realise buildings, which in turn influenced the types of building forms proposed. Today the options for constructing architecture are varied; they can be prefabricated, DIY crowd-sourced, or can have little human involvement. Murcutt presents the pavilion as a highly technical structure with advanced aeroplane wing material and “convex” structure. The scheme, however, reads like a series of material combinations taken from his experience, such as the breeze window, the boxed out wall, a type of door detail.

Sketch by Glenn Murcutt

This reading suggests that Murcutt imagines architecture first as an object, then as a series of parts rationalised for construction. An alternative idea that is more aligned to our contemporary culture is of discrete and re-configurable components far more capable of responding to changing needs. So the question arises, is Murcutt critically addressing wider culture in his pavilion?

Environment drawings by Glenn Murcutt

It is hard to detect where the 2019 MPavilion attempts to engage in a contemporary culture grappling with issues of inequality, discrimination, privacy, and economic insecurity, to name a few? Murcutt’s response is to fall back onto “place” as some panacea for the social problems we all negotiate through culture. The provision of ‘place’ is significant when the resulting place is a cultural process of assigning meaning to a space. But when meaning becomes assigned by a grand gesture, or through an orchestrated experience, architecture risks becoming part of the larger commercialisation of the city via social media.

Technical section drawing by Glenn Murcutt

My scepticism about Murcutt’s pavilion is that it appears trapped in a former view of pre-internet culture, a top-down mode of production in the traditional mould of art and literature. Younger generations would find this restriction of the cultural output to the elite not only confusing but profoundly dull. This criticism is not to discount the importance of elite performance in any domain, but to highlight the maintenance of artificial hierarchies in communication. A control over cultural hegemony misses a more contemporary understanding of culture as an unstable and information-hungry network of competing ideas, driven by all forms of accessible communication.

Architecture’s role

My critical view of the 2019 MPavilion is that it treats architecture as a system to merely provide the environmental conditions for inhabitation, leading to social interaction and cultural communication. It is easy to assume architecture’s influence restricted to the material object, but its impact extends beyond the finished artefact involving processes of design, construction and use. Therefore there is more potential in a pavilion to engage with culture than just shelter and prescribed sense of place. The structure could explore an issue such as accessibility or indigenous representation or could contribute to culture through collaborative design, through co-construction or social adaptation. Culture can exist in the actions generated by the architecture rather than merely within it.

It should be obvious now that I’m not impressed by the 2019 MPavilion. Some could say that I am prejudiced against age or experience; I disagree; it is more mistrust of institutions that attempt to maintain control over cultural communication. Distributing opportunity to architects with influence and privilege provide an outcome that works within the commercial system of culture, rather than enabling groups of architects who are more critically aware. An architecture devised and justified through the mind of the “genius” architect, is not equipped to engage in the conversations, ideas and social connections existing in that context, and will hopefully evolve in the future.